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Living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC) can sometimes trick me into believing that my life is now essentially little more than a series of medical tests and treatments. It can feel like my identity begins and ends with cancer.

Before breast cancer, I was in graduate school and working towards a career as an equine veterinarian. I had goals. I have always thrived in the academic and career worlds—I like pressure, deadlines, working hard, and feeling accomplished.

When I started chemotherapy, I had to leave veterinary school. Even though I later went into remission, I knew that vet school would no longer work for me, so I worked hard to build a freelance medical writing and editing business instead. I felt fulfilled and proud of the business that I built. When I became stage 4, I scaled back my client load but continued to work, determined not to let go of this part of my life. When the cancer spread to my brain, my days in the work force officially ended.

I no longer have the energy to study or work. My days are now scheduled around doctors’ appointments, my weeks around infusions, my months around PET/CT scans. The word “terminal” is never far from my mind; I exist with an expected expiration date that makes long-term plans difficult at best. My primary goal is now to get through each day. My purpose in life is to survive.

In truth, I struggle with feeling fulfilled in such an existence.

Then I began to write about my experiences as a 25-year-old breast cancer patient. It started as a cathartic exercise and slowly turned into something more. I joined writing groups and built a website. I began to feel a sense of accomplishment through my writing that I had not felt since my pre-cancer life.

My writing took an exciting turn about a year and a half ago when I received an email from filmmaker and director Kerith Lemon proposing that we turn one of my short stories into a short film, bare. I enthusiastically agreed. We hoped to create something that would feel empowering for the breast cancer community, to show an honest slice of what it is like to have breast cancer at 25, and to bring some awareness to the issues surrounding metastatic breast cancer.

Bare tells the story of how three of my closest childhood friends helped me shave my head before my first chemotherapy infusion when I was first diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer. My friends consoled me through my grief, hugged me when I cried, and helped me process the overwhelming fear that had pervaded every inch of my life since hearing the word “cancer”—fear about what would happen to me, how I would look, who I would become, if I would live at all.

In May, I had the opportunity to go to L.A. to watch the filming of bare. Part of me wanted to sob watching this scene from my life being acted out—but I didn’t want to be that girl sobbing on the film set, so I held back—part of me felt numb to it—it was all just so surreal—and part of me felt damn proud of myself. Proud that I had created something worthy of all these people coming together and working really hard to turn it into this beautiful film; proud of how far I have come since that day seven years ago when I wondered if I would ever feel beautiful again, if I would ever know what it meant to be loved by a man, if I’d have the strength to get through all that was to come. Proud that I found the strength, that I continue to find it every day, that even when I feel sick, I get up, push through, and have the experiences that mean everything.

In fact, I am more proud of this film than anything I ever worked on in school or in my freelance business. I believe that we have created something unique, beautiful, and powerful, and I accomplished my part of the project despite living with metastatic cancer, despite constant treatments, despite recovering from brain surgery and brain radiation.

Through bare, I rediscovered a facet of my identity that I thought I had lost amidst all the treatments and scans. It reminded me that my life is so much more than one medical intervention after another, that I am more than a cancer patient. I am a writer, a creator, a woman determined to continue living fully and purposefully.

Originally published in the MBC: YOUNG & STAGE IV, Vol 2, No 4 (Oct 2017) issue of Wildfire Magazine.

Bare was released in October, 2017 and can be viewed here. It was screened at the 9th Annual Lady Filmmakers Festival in Beverly Hills, California. Follow bare on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Rebecca Hall, co-writer of the short film bare, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer when she was 25 years old, just after beginning veterinary school at U.C. Davis. At 29 years old, the cancer metastasized to her bones and distant lymph nodes. Despite her diagnosis, she continued to work as a freelance medical writer and editor, as well as starting her own outdoor yoga company, Santa Cruz Nature Yoga. Rebecca’s breast cancer returned again in November 2016 and spread to her brain. She underwent an emergency craniotomy, followed by brain radiation. Rebecca is now recovering and lives in Santa Cruz, CA with her husband and her dog, Harriet. Follow Rebecca on her blog, Cancer, you can suck it.

Name: Rebecca Hall

Age: 32

Occupation: Writer/Editor, Yoga Instructor, MBC Advocate

Age when diagnosed with breast cancer: 25 with stage 3 breast cancer, 29 with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer

Breast cancer type: Invasive Ductal Carcinoma; triple positive at stage 3; triple positive when first metastasized (to bones and lymph nodes); HER2+, ER-, PR- when spread to brain

Breast cancer stage: 4

Treatment: ongoing: herceptin & perjeta IV infusions (because I am HER2+), zoladex shots (to put me in menopause), xgeva shots (for my bones), femara daily pills (to mop up any remaining estrogen), avastin IV infusions (for brain radiation necrosis)

Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer:

When I was 16, I competed in the World Equestrian Games for Great Britain (I was born in England).

What’s your go-to pick-me-up song?

It’s a little cheesy, but when I need an extra bit of oomph I put on the Fight Song by Rachel Platten. It’s my nieces’ (ages 4 and 7) favorite song, and we love to put it on and dance around the living room together. Whenever I listen to it, I picture doing that, and it makes me happy.

How did you discover your breast cancer?

I was laying on the floor on my stomach stretching one morning after a run, doing the same stretch that I had done the day before – done for years, actually – and it felt like I was laying on a golf ball. I felt my right breast and there was a lump. The Student Health Center nurse told me not to worry since I had zero family history of breast cancer and was only 25 (“25 year olds don’t get breast cancer”), but she sent me for a mammogram anyway, just in case. The mammogram was abnormal, so they biopsied it right then and there.

What went through your head when you received your diagnosis?

It sounds odd, but all I could focus on in that moment when they said I had cancer, was school. I was in a competitive graduate school program at the time, and I had worked really hard to get there. All I could think when they said those words was “But can I stay in school? How long will I have to step away from my studies to recover from surgery?” It’s not that I cared more about school than about dying or my family, certainly not, but I wasn’t ready to face the severity of my diagnosis yet. I couldn’t process that I might die or what having cancer would mean for me and my family. So, I focused on school instead. In time, I let the bigger, darker fears creep in, bit by bit.

What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer?

Someone once told me that I caused my own cancer. She said that she had spent hours meditating on it, and she was now sure that I had given myself the disease. She thought it probably happened because I wasn’t happy enough (this was someone who barely knew me!).

Who or what is/was your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer?

When I was stage 3, my parents were by far my biggest source of support. When I realized that I could not, in fact, simultaneously go through a demanding graduate program and chemotherapy, I stepped out of school and moved back in with my parents. I didn’t know anyone in their town; all my friends and siblings lived far away. So for the majority of that year of chemo, surgeries, and radiation, it was just me and my parents. They drove me to appointments, cooked for me, cared for me, and put up with me when I was too scared, sad, or angry to be the gracious patient that I wanted to be. Now that I am stage 4, I am married to a wonderful, supportive, caring man, and he has become my main source of support.

What is/was the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer?

For me, when I was stage 3, it was the social isolation. None of my friends had been through anything remotely close to what I was going through. They were still in a phase of life when they spent most of their free time going out and drinking. I couldn’t do those activities anymore, and even if I could, I was no longer interested. We couldn’t relate to each other anymore. Plus, because they were so young, they hadn’t yet developed the tools to cope with my diagnosis. They had no idea how to be there for me. Many of them just disappeared from my life because they felt so unprepared – which left me even more alone. A few were wonderful, but they were the minority. My family was great, but I also needed my friends. I needed people my own age to talk to about guys and dating and to joke around with. After going through my first diagnosis, I thankfully found a group of friends and a husband who do have the skills to cope with my situation, and they are the most supportive, loving, and empathetic people.

What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer?

I learned that I love writing, and that I’m good at it. Pre-cancer, I was a veterinary school student, but it became clear pretty quickly that vet school was no longer doable, even when I went into remission after my stage 3 treatment. Then a former professor offered to hire me to write his next book. The only problem was… I was not a writer. He convinced me that I could do it, so I gave it a go, and it went really well. Since then I have started my own writing and editing freelance business, and I have written and edited countless articles, book chapters, books, and blogs. Eventually I gained the confidence to do my own creative writing. I started my own blog about my experiences with cancer (Cancer, you can suck it), have had a few memoir-style articles published, and even co-wrote a short film, bare, about my experience shaving my head before my first chemo. I never would have attempted any of this had cancer not forced me to leave veterinary school.

In one sentence, what words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?

Feel everything that you need to feel, and remember that you don’t have to stay positive all the time. I felt an intense pressure to look on the bright side and remain upbeat throughout treatment. Because I could not, I felt like I was failing, and that only added to the enormous emotional burden that cancer dumped on me. No one wanted to hear how scared I was of dying, how profoundly sad I was, how angry I was. But in order to move through, and past, those feelings, I had to be given the space to feel them. They had to be given voice. So to any young woman recently diagnosed – it is ok to feel whatever it is that you are feeling. It will do you no good to suppress your feelings just to make other people comfortable. YOU are the priority, and your feelings are valid – whatever they may be!

Support throughout the cancer process is critical and I was extremely blessed in this department.

Family and Friends

From the moment I was diagnosed and shared the news, I was surrounded by love and support to an extent I’ve never know (or needed). I continue to be humbled by the number of people who truly cared about how I was doing and still care, several years later. Before my hysterectomy I was worried and asked mom, “What if nobody has prayers left for me?” My anesthetist for that surgery was an incredibly handsome angel – apparently, they do!
Prayers = answered. I chronicled my interaction with him. If you feel like laughing and swooning in equal measure, read Love in the OR at this link.

I knew that having a friend or family member with me at appointments and chemo would be necessary if I was going to make it through. After my first chemo, I was shocked by the immediacy of the symptoms. It hurt… bad. I told mom, “This is gonna kill me. I can’t do this seven more times. I’m gonna die.” She was so calm and steady when she replied, “You’re not going anywhere. You will not die.” I don’t know if deep down she doubted her words, but in that moment it was exactly what I needed to hear. I clung to her confidence and used it to battle my rising fear.

Even though chemo was brutal, I have many fond memories:

  • A friend sneaking a doughnut into my purse to celebrate finishing yet another blooddraw
  • Laughing during the many hours in the chemo chair (half of my chemo sessions were more than five hours… each!)
  • Watching the Flintstones with my grandmother while eating a cold cut sandwich, made just the same as when I was younger
  • Hearing stories of a little girl who prayed for me every single night and prayed to give my doctors strength, too
  • Getting Starbucks from my aunt at the best possible moments
  • Receiving tons of loving messages
  • All the hand holding (there was a lot)
  • Visits from fur friends, because who doesn’t love cuddling a Great Dane?
  Cuddling with Sadie, the Great Dane
Tim Hortons donuts

As with anything, balance is essential – it’s okay to say no if you don’t feel like seeing people on a particular day.

You aren’t obligated to receive guests and your loved ones wouldn’t want to impose either. For me, the weekends following chemo were “off” times and I would only allow family and close friends to visit. The pain was too much to handle and I decided to let go of the guilt. Being your authentic self is so important! And some days, your authentic self is exhausted, sore and needs space.

I think I summarized it best when a friend and I were cozy at my house after chemo. We were laughing about something as I braced myself for the nausea to set in and I turned to her and said, “You know – chemo and pain aside – this has been a really great day.”

The Medical Team

I know it sounds crazy, but I smile when I think about my medical team. Each one was a collaborative relationship that enhanced my knowledge of that step in the process. The warmth and support of both the staff and doctors was unexpected, but very welcome! To this day, I get hugs when I enter their offices for checkups.

The surgeon who performed my double mastectomy was also the doctor who told me I had cancer. Before my last appointment with him, I attempted to gather my thoughts so that I could express to him how much his expertise and positive demeanor meant to me. When the moment came I was overwhelmed. I teared up as he said he was proud of me and wished me “the best of everything good in this life.”  I shook his hand when I should have given him a hug. I’m thankful that it’s his kind face I see when I think back on the moment I was told the results of the biopsy that changed my life. I blogged about the visit, including a chance encounter with a woman waiting for her breast lump biopsy results. Read more at this link.

My plastic surgeon was also a perfect fit for me. We talked about such intimate things – breast size, texture, sex, femininity. We delved into the nitty gritty, but found humour in the most serious moments. I was in my surgical robes waiting to go in for my first mastectomy and reconstruction. It was the most terrified I’ve ever been in my life. (When I was on the operating table, I was shaking so hard that only my ankles, butt and shoulders touched the cold steel.) Before entering the operating room, she needed to do markups on my chest – where is the natural cleavage line? What kind of cleavage would I like? How high should the implant be? She said, “Okay let’s put an X on the left breast” (the one we were removing and replacing). I screamed out, “WAIT… unless X means ‘leave the breast alone.’” She froze and the small group of us stared wide eyed at each other. She replied, “Oh my god she could be right.” We all burst out laughing. Imagine mixing that up?! I can’t even.

The strongest connection I have is with my medical oncologist. I wasn’t exaggerating when I described chemo as brutal. Chemo, no matter the type, is poison. You poison your body over and over to shake up your cells and prevent cancer from forming in the future. In my case, I was young and thought that chemo wouldn’t be aggressive. It ended up the complete opposite – they went hard on me because I was young and they knew that I could take it. I couldn’t have made it through those seven treatments without my oncologist. He saw me at my lowest, most painful and horrible moments. There were appointments where I would try to negotiate ways around the pain (there weren’t any). There were days when I told him that my body couldn’t withstand many more rounds. I went to him with questions and topics for discussion and he always took the time to have an open dialogue. He never missed an opportunity to reassure or support me. I trusted him with my life – I still do – and that trust is what made all the difference. He made all the difference. The day I’m discharged from his care will be a very sad day indeed.

Support Yourself

Your health is just that – yours. Advocate for yourself! Ask questions and discuss the answers. Collaborating helps both doctors and patients alike. I detest pity – I refuse to give or receive it. Moments of doubt, fear, sadness, anger or regret? Sure. Pity? Never. To me, it’s a useless emotion.

Prior to beginning chemo, you must attend Chemotherapy Education.  If you think I tried getting out of it, you’re right.  I decided I wanted to attend on my own. Friends and family had been great about attending all my appointments, and I knew that I could handle this one solo. I walked in to the room and it was full of people – none of them near my age. As usual. I approached the woman with the clipboard and gave her my name. She replied by asking me who I was supporting. I gave her my name again and pointed to the chart. She asked me a second time who I was there to support. I said, myself, pointed to my name on the list and asked for my education package. I was irritated that she didn’t clue in sooner. Her face dropped and she handed over the file. I ended up sitting next to the only other person in the room who didn’t have anyone with them. She was a 50 something going through her second battle with cancer. We were a perfect, somewhat sarcastic, pair – she even took my question seriously when the topic of sex during chemo came up and I blurted out, “REALLY?!”

Having the support of friends, family and doctors is more helpful than words can describe. But perhaps even more important is showing up for yourself. Cancer patients or non-cancer patients – we all have moments in our lives where we’re forced to put up or shut up. Unfortunately, in the case of cancer patients, those moments are plentiful. I’ve felt my blood pour down my back and the intense sting of my skin being cauterized. I’ve tasted chemo and had a drain pulled from my body that was longer than my forearm. I’ve been on a surgical table alone and cold more times than I ever thought possible.

Was I in pain? Did I cry? Was I angry, resentful and terrified? Yes to all. But I showed up.

The point isn’t how deep you dig to find your strength, it’s that you dig at all that counts.

During chemo and the surgeries, supporting myself came mostly in the form of managing physical pain and making extremely difficult decisions. Now, self-care comes in the form of psychotherapy. After quite a bit of searching, I found a therapist who I click wonderfully with and my biweekly appointments with her have become a beautiful part of my self-love routine. She guides, reassures and teaches me even more ways to support myself.  #progress

Cassandra Umbriaco is a guest blogger for Rethink Breast Cancer. Since being diagnosed with stage two breast cancer at 28 years old, she combines her love of writing with a passion to help women affected by cancer. Check out her blog at  

Cassandra loves travelling as much as she can, dresses that twirl, anything Disney and her little red Fiat – Luna. 

Name: Cassandra

Age: 32

Occupation: Communications Specialist

Age when diagnosed with breast cancer: 28

Breast cancer type: Triple Negative, BRCA 1

Breast cancer stage: 2

Treatment: Mastectomy and chemotherapy

Tell us a fun fact about yourself that has nothing to do with cancer.

I’m an unapologetic Disney nerd!  I’ve been to Disney World nearly 20 times, I own way too many Minnie ears (a must-have accessory when park hopping) and I considered making a Disney song the answer to the next question.

What’s your go-to pick-me-up song?

I don’t really have a go-to pick-me-up song.  I love all genres of music – anything with a catchy beat!

How did you discover your breast cancer?

My annual physical was coming up and I didn’t want to go – I felt healthy and didn’t see the need for a checkup.  I remember calling my family doctor’s office and saying, “So you’re just going to do a breast exam?”  Just a breast exam.

During the appointment, my doctor checked the right breast and there were no issues.  She moved to my left breast and her expression became serious immediately.  She said, “You don’t feel that?”  I had no idea what she was talking about.  She informed me that I had a very large lump in my left breast.

From there, everything moved quickly.  My family doctor and the doctor who later performed my biopsy (and double mastectomy) took my case very seriously and never brushed off urgency because I was so young.  The crazy thing was that my lump didn’t fit the usual description of a breast cancer lump.  I was calm and collected throughout the process because I was sure it wasn’t cancer.  I was so young.  It wasn’t possible.  Except it was.

What went through your head when you received your diagnosis?

I immediately said to the doctor, “But I’m only 28?”  I’m sure it sounded more like a question than a statement.  It was an out of body experience.  I was stunned.  I could hear my mom crying beside me and I thought, this can’t be.  How can this be?  Minutes later, when I came out of the initial haze, my first thought was, I don’t want to die.  My second thought was, I hate needles – how the hell am I going to get through this?

What’s the craziest thing someone said to you after being diagnosed with breast cancer?

I received a couple of questions and comments soon after surgery related to “enjoying” my new implant.  Even thinking back on those conversations makes me angry.  I want people to know that there is nothing enjoyable about a mastectomy.  Those of us who’ve had to go through it didn’t get a breast augmentation – we had our breasts removed and replaced (in reconstruction cases).  Awareness and sensitivity around that is very important to me and I don’t want other women to have to face similar comments.

In general, I wish people knew that sometimes the best thing to say is nothing at all.

Who or what is/was your biggest source of support throughout your experience with cancer?

Without a doubt, my family and friends.  Here’s an excerpt from a blog a wrote that sums it up:

November 11, 2016: 11.12.13. Hands down one of the worst days of my life.  Even still, I hate the feeling of leaves falling on me because they were falling in abundance as I walked into the doctor’s office for my biopsy results.

There are many words I could choose to focus on when thinking about this day – terror, sadness, anger, grief, shock.  Those words still cross my mind. But the one I decide to focus on – love.

(After my first mastectomy + reconstruction on November 27, 2013) I was being wheeled out of recovery and my family saw me and along they came (even though they weren’t immediately allowed to come with me).  Mom, Dad, Nonnie, Aunt Angie, Aunt Mary and Rusty – all in a row.  I was so drugged up and in serious pain, I could hardly move or open my eyes.  But I could hear them asking the nurses questions and calling my name.  I wasn’t able to show it, but I was cracking up.  What a hilarious group they made – slightly angering the nurses with their questions and comments that came in quick succession.  “How’s she doing?”  “Cassandra?”  “Sweetie, can you hear me?”  “Where is she going now?” “Is she okay?”  “Can we go with her?”  “When can we see her?”  “Cassandra?”

As I was wheeled down the hall, I thought – my God, I love these people.  They would follow me anywhere just so I wouldn’t be alone.  To make sure I knew that I was loved and safe.  And to make me laugh.

That kind of love has serious, life-altering power.  I was filled to the brim with it.  I inhaled it, held my breath and kept it there until April 11, 2014 – my last chemo.  For that long, brutal winter that love helped me survive.  I think it still does.

What is/was the most difficult part of being a young woman with breast cancer?

From the moment you’re diagnosed, it’s a rollercoaster.  You are bombarded with appointments and questions and fear and pain.  Your mind is on overdrive and so are your emotions.

Throughout treatment, I couldn’t find my niche.  I didn’t want anything to do with pink ribbons.  Traditional places for support didn’t appeal to me.  I wasn’t able to identify with any other cancer patients, in part because they weren’t (near) my age and also because I couldn’t see through the clutter of chemo to even want to seek out people like me.

Having a double mastectomy, chemotherapy and a hysterectomy within two years took its toll.  I often struggled when in a room with other “normal” young women who hadn’t gone through the many trials of breast cancer.  I felt deformed and questioned my worth.  But time has helped to heal those wounds.

What’s something unexpected you learned about yourself as a result of having breast cancer?

I knew I was tough, but I didn’t know I was this tough.  My capacity to handle physical pain is much more than I would have ever thought possible.

Having breast cancer also heightened what I already thought about beauty – that it’s so much more than our appearance and can be found in the darkest of times.

For instance, losing my hair was difficult.  To have some control over the loss, I shaved my head the night before my first chemo treatment.  A close friend came over to shave it and we expected there to be tears – it broke my heart to chop my long, luscious locks.  Slowly but surely the strands fell until only a buzz cut remained.  Mom was there, of course, and we chatted and laughed throughout the process and ended with a champagne toast.  I was terrified (with chemo looming), but I felt incredibly loved and supported.  And when I looked in the mirror at my new ‘do,’ I felt truly beautiful.

In one sentence, what words of wisdom would you pass on to another young woman who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer?

In this case, it’s difficult to limit words of wisdom to one sentence.  I would want to tell her that I know she’s the most terrified she’s been in her life.  That I know she’s wondering why this happened to her at this age.  That in no way is this fair or okay.  I would tell her to get ready for battle because that’s what this is – an all-out war.

But I would also tell her that she’s so very strong – much stronger than she realizes.  I have no doubt that she can do this.

There is a saying that I love and live by.  It’s simple, but encompasses so much.  My one sentence would be…

Have courage and be kind.

I was in remission for four years after my stage 2 diagnosis and then, nine days before our wedding, I found out the cancer was back and it was metastatic.

I was lucky enough to get signed up for a clinical trial that has kept me stable for the last 21 months. The clinical trial starves my cancer of estrogen of which my particular breast cancer ‘feeds’ off. The active drug has just been approved by the FDA in the States as a first line of defense for advanced breast cancer. As my husband says ‘you helped make that happen.’ It’s a pretty great feeling.

Less than six months after my stage 4 diagnosis, my brother and his girlfriend nominated me to be the Toronto Blue Jays Honourary Bat Girl. To qualify, you had to have ‘gone to bat against breast cancer’ and be a Toronto Blue Jays fan; I qualified. I didnt win but the woman who did, a fellow Rethink Breast Cancer advocate, Michelle Riccio, also had stage 4 breast cancer and so I was thrilled that young women were getting exposure regardless of if I won or not. The crowd was seeing a face that didn’t resemble our grandmothers’.

This year, my husband Keith nominated me. Thanks to the people who surround me and love and support me – I like to refer to them as ‘Team Katie’ – I won. I was this year’s Toronto Blue Jays Honourary Bat Girl.

When MLB called from New York City to tell me that I won, I couldn’t contain my emotions. I cried for most of the conversation. So many of my days are spent at the hospital, attending appointments, having procedures, or on the phone with doctors. Knowing that I got to be part of the Toronto Blue Jays organization, if even in an honourary role, was pretty astounding.

We all know what the pink ribbon represents but very few women under the age of 50 think it applies to them.

I tell women, if your doctor says you’re too young to have breast cancer, tell her about me.

Being diagnosed at 26, more than half the age of the average, presents different challenges, including financial burdens (I had just graduated university with 3 degrees and had student loans), I hadn’t made a name for myself in the work world, and cancer robbed us of having children. Needless to say, it presents different isolating issues than women diagnosed in their 50s, 60s, and 70s.

This contest made the isolation, that I as a young woman experience, such a miniscule part of my day as complete strangers were messaging me, supporting me, and sharing their own stories related to cancer. It was empowering.

I was recognized on the Rogers Center field and my story was told to thousands sitting in their seats about to watch the Jays take on the Seattle Mariners. I was presented with flowers by Jays pitcher Marco Estrada, given an MLB jersey, watched the game with my family from a suite and have memories that will last a lifetime.

After the game, about 30 of us headed over to the Amsterdam Brewhouse for dinner and drinks to celebrate the big day. I had emailed them a few weeks before, explaining the day’s events and asking if they could accommodate our large group. They emailed back explaining how they would love to host and just like that we had a place to convene after the big game.

What I didn’t know was that while I was preparing for the game, Amsterdam Brewhouse was doing some homework on me.

As Keith and I walked into the restaurant, and as my family and friends rose to their feet to clap and cheer, I noticed all of the servers had pink ribbons pinned to their uniforms. I gave some hugs, had some quick conversations and sat down across from my mom at the end of the table.

Not long after ordering some water, one of the restaurant managers came over to introduce himself. He started by telling our table that the pink ribbons that I had seen were in honour of me. The restaurant had seen some of the advocacy work that I had done and referred to me as an inspiration. He continued by saying that the pink ribbons were meant to help spread awareness to their customers about the disease and young women with breast cancer. This is when my mom’s tears started falling. He also said that the staff at the Amsterdam Brewhouse were donating money throughout the night and once they had collected everyone’s donations, the organization of my choosing would receive the funds in my name. I hopped up from my chair and hugged the manager and thanked him profusely. What a generous act of kindness and thoughtfulness.

At the end of the night, I asked for my bill for my husband and I. It was brought over minutes later with a note that read:

‘This one is on us. Thank you for coming in and being so amazing.’ The balance was $0.00.

Just to clarify, Amsterdam Brewhouse was a place I had never been before, it was chosen based on its reviews, being harbourfront and its proximity to the Rogers Center and its size, which could accommodate our large group. I wasn’t an employee’s sister or a past server. I didn’t know anyone there nor had I ever stepped through their doors. They did this essentially for a stranger.

Yesterday, Amsterdam Brewhouse donated $221 in my name to Rethink Breast Cancer who without question is my organization of choice.

I can’t thank Amsterdam Brewhouse and Rethink Breast Cancer enough for making me feel special, loved and supported through my continued breast cancer experience.


– Katie Davidson

Beautiful Jasmin –

This tribute to you comes later then we wanted, but we know your laid-back spirit would forgive us. As a group of women who have plenty to say, we lost our words when it came to losing you.

You were a member of the Rethink family for a long time. First as a peer support volunteer and then as a full-fledged leader in in the metastatic breast cancer movement. Your contributions to the cause evolved as you did. Your guidance and leadership was not the aggressive system-change kind – although you definitely appreciated the need for fiery advocacy for those with MBC. It was more of the “do all the good you can, by all the means that you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can” kind.

When it came to facing life and the most troubling and dark circumstances, you found the light and radiated it. You didn’t just “talk the talk” with mantras and inspirational quotes that you picked up along the way – you embodied them through your humanity and your kindness. 

And when we first heard of your passing, we took a moment, read this passage by Pema Chodron (a favourite of yours), and enjoyed a delicious strawberry:

“There is a story of a woman running away from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds on to the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she is clinging. She also sees a beautiful little bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse.
Then she just takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly.
Tigers above, tigers below. This is actually the predicament that we are always in, in terms of our birth and death. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life; it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed about it, or we could finally appreciate it and delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.”

Delight in the preciousness of every single moment of our life.

Thank you for that reminder, Jasmin. Although we can no longer bask in your glow, we are forever inspired by you to continue creating a community for women coping with cancer that will nurture their soul and heal their spirit when they feel broken.

Thank you for creating Stretch Heal Grow and for trusting us to carry it forward. Thank you for showing us how to hold space for others even when we are suffering ourselves. Thank you for continuing to be a guiding light in the lives of the many, many people whose lives you touched. Thank you for everything.

With love + gratitude,

MJ, Shawna, Alison, Maura, Jen, Stacey, Ali, Alex, Paulina and Bailey

More memories from the community who loved you:

International Women’s Day feels extra inspiring this year. Coming so soon after January’s Women’s March, which saw millions participate, catching the world’s attention and filling our social media feeds, I am excited for the future. This year’s IWD theme is #BeBoldForChange and the campaign is calling on us to help make the working world a better place, a more gender inclusive place. The Women’s March organizers are calling for participation in the #ADayWithoutAWoman strike to highlight the economic power that women have and also call attention to the economic injustices women continue to face. As a feminist, I will continue to strive for gender equality.

At the same time, all this powerful marching and resistance by women, does have me reflecting on how important the early women’s movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s was to the breast cancer movement. Feminist breast cancer activists, like Barbara Brenner, who led the early breast cancer movement helped de-stigmatize this disease, promote solidarity, and provide support for those diagnosed. But they also “demanded more”—to push governments, doctors and researchers and industry to address gaps in progress against breast cancer. Feels like the time is right to shake things up in the breast cancer movement. The early advocates got angry and called b.s. where they saw b.s. And, they made change.

Many positive advances in breast cancer have been made over the past few decades. But we need more, especially for our young and metastatic women.

The past few months have been exceptionally tough. Two of our brightest stars in our community, daring and inspiring advocates for metastatic breast cancer passed away, leaving their loved ones, including very young children, as well as our community, struggling to make sense and find a way forward.

It’s clear that more needs to be done to dramatically improve the outcomes for women who get the news that their breast cancer has metastasized.

We cannot be content with tiny improvements. We need dramatic gains to raise the bar. We need to “be bold for change” in our thinking about metastatic breast cancer.

Rethink Breast Cancer strives to be positive. We want to empower women dealing with breast cancer and inspire them to work together and with us to make change. As an organization advocating to improve services and access to treatment for women with breast cancer, our approach and positioning involves coming to the table as a helpful “partner” with recommendations to Government on key issues. We are also “Rethinkers,” what the marketing gurus call a “disruptive” or “challenger” brand. And in the way the Women’s March channels a spirit of love, freedom and unity in order to challenge issues that threaten and hurt, especially the most marginalized, there is an opportunity for this approach in the breast cancer community.

Women with metastatic breast cancer have often felt marginalized by the broader survivor movement.

I see that changing as awareness of metastatic breast cancer increases. Women with several years of survivorship are putting aside their own deep fears regarding their health and are reaching out to support those who are dealing with recurrences and metastasis.

To solve the problem of metastatic breast cancer, we need the entire breast cancer community involved and engaged in the issues.

I will be engrossed in today’s activities for International Women’s Day and, as with almost everything I do, I will be looking for lessons and inspiration to bring back to Rethink Breast Cancer.


For more information or to get involved with our metastatic work click here.







It was Michelle’s blog post 3 Strikes I’m Out that really made me notice her and love her tenacity. She had a passion for baseball and lived by Babe Ruth’s mantra, “Never allow the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game”. There is no one I can think of who embodied this more than Michelle.

3 Strikes I’m Out was about Michelle’s foray into cancer support after being diagnosed with metastatic cancer in February 2014.  This exploration started by immersing herself in not one, but three major cancer programs and the take-home for her from these experiences was that this type of conventional support (group, conferences and retreats) was not for her. She was going to find a way to cope with her diagnosis– on her terms.

I would later find out once we got to know each other over Dim Sum and our love of Blue Jays baseball there was nothing half-assed about the way she approached her cancer. She would try everything and she would ultimately decide if it worked for her not. If it didn’t work, Michelle cut it lose and moved on to what was next – a new treatment, an alternative diet, sharing her story on National television so that other people understood metastatic cancer and those going through it didn’t have to feel so alone. From my perspective, she rarely looked behind her and kept her eyes on the ball, at all times.  She was going to bat with cancer and she believed she was winning every time a treatment or drug kept her stable, even for a short time.


Michelle was an advocate for more research in metastatic cancer and pushed for more clinical trials and new drugs. I witnessed this at the most basic level when she would share her story with various pharma companies always asking in a commanding and compassionate voice to keep doing what they are doing so that she could continue to watch her son grow up. She would turn to me in the parking lot and say, “I was such a blubbering mess. It was awful.” No, it was brilliant, Michelle, because they not only heard you, they felt connected to the work and compelled to make a difference because of you.


The last time I saw Michelle I sat beside her on a panel for the show City Line. I was positioned as the “expert” in talking to kids about cancer and she was one of two young women sharing her experience. In her determined way, Michelle spoke eloquently about the ups and downs of parenting with a terminal illness, she used humour whenever she could and she inspired the audience of mostly mothers to be the best versions of themselves, despite trying circumstances. She was, in fact, the expert and a super hero to many.

Photo courtesy of Catherine Hudon/5Mphotographie

Patti Smith once said “Never let go of the fiery sadness called desire”. I never saw Michelle as sad, ever. Her desire to live as well as she could, for as long as she could, was her super power. I know I speak for all of us who had the privilege of knowing her, laughing with her, working with her and loving her that we will miss her and we will continue to go to bat for her, and all women with breast cancer.

-Shawna + The Rethink Team




Imagine being 36 and being told you have breast cancer. It has already moved out of the breast and started spreading through your bones. When you are first diagnosed with any kind of disease, the first thing that happens is information overload. You’re alone, scared, and overwhelmed by all of the new information you’re being given because there is too much of everything coming at you at once.

It’s terminal but you haven’t been told this yet. It seems the only thing the doctors want to discuss with you at this point is what you want to happen with your end of life care.

Do you want to be resuscitated if you go into cardiac arrest? Do you want us to do CPR and chest compressions? Do you want us to defibrillate you and shock your heart? Do you want to be put on life support if it is needed? Do you want to be DNR and for us to just let you go so that you can pass away? What exactly do you want us to do? At this point, no one has told you exactly how bad the cancer is or what your prognosis is for survival. They don’t even tell you it was Stage IV in the beginning. They told you they were still trying to stage the cancer and you don’t really have any other information about your disease. All you know right now is pain. How do you make any of these decisions when you don’t even know you are dying?

It’s the end of January 2015 and I’ve finally been transferred to the Cross Cancer Institute to start my chemo treatment. The resident doctor shows up to my room the first night I’m there to check me over and prescribe my drugs for the evening. One of the first things he wants to talk about is my end of life care. [pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]I’m high, alone, and scared because at this point I’m not really certain what is going on and it seems like yet again all the Dr wants to do is discuss what I want to happen right before I die.[/pullquote]

All I can think is that this Dr thinks I’m going to die in my sleep and I’m not going to make it until morning. I’m so afraid to sleep because I fear that every time I close my eyes it will be the last time and there is so much stuff I’ve left undone or unsaid in my life.

I’ve learned through these experiences that some stuff needs to be dealt with immediately and others can be put off for a later date. It’s been 18 months since my diagnosis and the cancer has spread into my brain and my last bone scan is showing that the cancer in my bones may be starting to become active again. If this is the case, the cancer could start to spread to the other organs soon and I’ve got some major decisions to make about my Personal Directive and Living Will. I’ve had a chance to think about things and talk to my family doctor about the realities of my health and medical condition. I’ve been able to make informed decisions about what I think would be best if it all comes down to making these decisions. We were able to have a good honest discussion about what my current condition is and what are some of the possibilities I can expect at the end if I do go into cardiac arrest or need to think about life support. I made some decisions about my end of life care last year but to be honest I’ve been procrastinating making anymore of these decisions because they are so final.

I have for the most part accepted that I’m dying but completing these documents makes death a reality for me.

What are the first thoughts that go through your head after you’ve been told you are dying? It certainly isn’t how you are going to pick the person that may end up being the most important person in your life.

Just to clarify, I’m 37 years old, I’m single and I live alone with my lovely cat Aurora. I have no spouse that can make these decisions for me so I need to choose another family member to be my next of kin. It will be either my mother or my brother. I know it’s going to be a hard decision for me to pick one of them but it’s a very important decision and I need to choose wisely. I have to take my best interests into account as well as the best interests of the person I choose. [pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]They have to be able to live with any decision that they make when it comes to the end of my life and that decision will ultimately result in my death.[/pullquote]

My mother had to make end of life decisions with her sister in 2007 when her mother, my grandmother, was at the end of her life and died. I know to this day my mom struggles with the decision that they made and has a hard time forgiving herself. Her best friend and sister was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2013 and ended up dying on my birthday in December 2013. My father was diagnosed with Chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL) or small lymphocytic lymphoma (SLL) in October of 2014. He has since been diagnosed with congestive heart failure.

I was diagnosed with my cancer a few months later in January 2015. My mom is still struggling with the grief for her sister and hasn’t had a chance to properly grieve her because she has had to be so involved in my treatment and care. She already has a lot going on in her life without potentially having to put this on her as well.

A parent isn’t supposed to outlive their children and I don’t know if she would be able to let me go and be able to live with her decision even knowing that it would be the best for me in the end and it is ultimately what I would have wanted.

My brother is the other person that I trust to make my end of life decisions. I trust that any decision he makes would be what we’ve discussed and what I want to happen. We can discuss and prepare as much as we can for what might happen at the end of my life but there is only so much a person can predict.

James is 39 and with him being the same age, I know that if he has to make a decision about something that we haven’t had a chance to discuss that he would be able to make an educated decision based on what he would want to happen to him and the quality of life he’d want right now. I know that he would be able to follow through with my end of life plans but like my mother I don’t want him to have to live the rest of his life knowing that he might have made the decision to let his little sister die.[/pullquote]

I decided last year that he was the best choice and would be my next of kin but it was and continues to be a hard decision.

I struggle all the time knowing that if it does come down to it in the end, he’ll have to live with whatever happens and I truly don’t know if I want that but I really don’t have any other options because someone has to be there to support me and make decisions about my life if I’m not able to.

All said and done, I don’t know what the end of my life will be like. I could very well just pass away in my sleep and no decisions will have to be made by my family. I don’t know how bad I’ll be or what my state of mind will be.[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] I need to be realistic and take all things into consideration so that in the end the decisions about my death is a little easier on me and my family. [/pullquote]

All I want my person to have to do is act on my wishes and hopefully it will ease the burden on them knowing that it was what I wanted in the end and this person will become the most important person in my life.

Originally published July 21st, 2015 here.

Cathy was 37 when she was diagnosed with metastatic cancer in 2015 just after completing her Master’s Degree. She is chronicling her journey on her blog Is My Cancer Affecting your Ears?  

Lover of:  my family, my friends, and good food & wine

This was Mel`s answer when I asked her about what she loved. Simple and definitive. She spoke this way about many aspects of her life and as I got to know her, I realized she was a pragmatist with a beautiful heart. Friends and family were her soul. The end.

When we first spoke on the phone before the metastatic Stretch Heal Grow retreat in 2015 she talked about her husband Jason, her twin little girls Frances and Harlow, and about Michele, her identical twin sister, with the kind of love and passion reserved for only the elite in her life.

There is no doubt that Melanie touched people and the relationships in her life flourished because she approached them with 100% love.  She was all-in and it was important to her to focus on the here and now, not on what the future would hold for her and her illness. She told me how living with metastatic cancer affects her day-to-day and I was inspired by how she refused to let her illness define her. She talked about how she preferred the comfort and company of friends and family to other models of support, and how she enjoyed the distraction of continuing to work in spite of it all, for as long as she could.

She declared herself a`realist’ to me, and I think this allowed her to live her life fully and ultimately share her story to help other women with metastatic cancer feel supported and loved too.

In addition to our LiveLaughLearn series, Melanie also participated on our Young + Metastatic panel where she spoke about the needs of young metastatic breast cancer patients and the impact on their caregivers. She had a deep understanding about the important role her loved ones played in supporting her in her struggle with cancer, and advocated for their support needs.

She seemed more concerned for their future wellbeing once she was gone, then the fact that the reality of her disease would cause her to say goodbye too soon.

Each woman I have had the privilege of working with through Rethink has taught me something important. A little nugget of knowledge or inspiration that stays with me…from Melanie I learned that there is mighty strength in loving the ones you`re with, especially when you have to leave them before you are ready.


* Photos courtesy of Catherine Hudon/5Mphotographie